Sarah Moran, 2012
Spending your life with a wine-maker is “not too shabby,” Kristie Sheppard is fond of saying.
She and fiancé Kieran Robinson, both Chester County natives, are getting married May 19 in Stone Harbor.
“Kieran introduced me to fine wines,” Sheppard said. “I liked wine before I met him but … “
The couple — he graduated from then-Downingtown High School and she from Great Valley High School — now makes Rhone-style wines in Sonoma County, Calif.
Kieran Robinson Wines recently released its first vintage, a 2009 Bennett Valley Syrah, more purplish and inky in color and complex in flavor than many other red wines. Syrahs are characterized by their blend of vibrant fruit and savory, spicy earthiness; they are also usually heavier than the better known, more delicately flavored pinot noir, immortalized by the 2004 movie “Sideways.”
Locally, Bennett Valley Syrah wine is available at Georges’ Restaurant and Paramour, both in Wayne. Robinson and Sheppard have hired an agent to attract more restaurant customers, and they return to Chester County seven or eight times a year to visit their families and promote their label. They still call the area home in part because Robinson’s parents live in Uwchlan and Sheppard’s in West Pikeland.
(The winery can help with orders and the 2009 vintage is also available via special liquor order from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.)
Kieran Robinson first cut his winemaking teeth at Six Mile Creek Winery in New York’s Finger Lakes while studying environmental sciences at nearby Ithaca College. He then returned home to Chester County, where he worked in production for the 2002, 2003 and 2004 vintages at Chaddsford Winery, doing everything from crushing the fruit to filling the barrels and bottling.
It was at Chaddsford, Lee and Eric Miller’s winery in Pennsbury, where Robinson first met Sheppard, who strolled in one day to buy wine.
Eventually, the pair moved to Malleval, France, in the heart of France’s northern Rhone Valley, where they studied French winemaking philosophy while interning at Domaine Pierre Gaillard. Then it was back to California, where Robinson apprenticed under well-known winemakers Bruce Cakebread and Paul Hobbs.
Bennett Valley’s first vintage is 250 cases — 3,000 bottles, to be exact — from four tons of grapes. They’re grown at Vivio Vineyards, just south of Santa Rosa; Robinson then crushes the grapes and bottles their precious juice and esters in French oak barrels at Adobe Road Winery. He works there as assistant wine maker during the hectic, cyclical growing and crushing season.
Contract arrangements such as these are typical in the wine industry, Robinson explained, particularly among smaller vintners who rent out equipment and winemaking time to even tinier operations without the wherewithal to buy their own.
Sheppard is the business manager. She also works full time as executive director of the Napa Valley Museum, which leans heavily on that region’s rich and varied winemaking tradition.
California is far more predictable a wine-growing locale than Pennsylvania, Robinson said.
“In California, we can have cool years. We get some rain, but the temperature and precipitation and humidity are far more constant than in Pennsylvania. A hurricane can come through back home a week or two before picking (think Irene), soaking grapes with rain and sometimes causing their skins to slit. Then rot and mildew can set in.
“Wine-making uses science to make art,” he continued. “The mentality is different in France, where most decisions are made by human tasters rather than chemistry. Younger U.S. vintners are more likely to use Old World techniques and are involved in winemaking from start to finish. They trust their own palates more than detailed analyses of pH levels, sugar and acidity.”
He sees a return to taste-driven vintages as an offshoot of the locavore movement, where people want to know where their food and wine come from, and how they’re grown and made. He thinks of himself as “coaxing the best out of the grapes and the vintage that I can.”
Each vintage costs about $40,000 to produce. “We’ve just released our first vintage after three years of hard work,” Robinson said. “Wine makers spend lots of money before we realize any return.”
Handmade, 60-gallon reusable French oak barrels – the wood 40 percent new to add “toasty flavors,” Robinson noted – cost $1,200 each. The 2010 vintage is still developing flavors in barrels and will be bottled later next month, while the 2011 vintage just finished fermentation.
In the glorified wine-tasting language of oenophiles the world over, here’s how Robinson and Sheppard describe their wine: “Aromatics are well-incorporated and multi-layered. Aromas turn from spicy red fruit to orange peel and smoky pork fat, with a hint of bay leaf, as the wine sits in the glass. Asian spices and red fruit play with smoky oak subtleties. Refined tannins at the finish grip your tongue.”
Those tastes will be front-and-center at the pair’s nuptials this spring, when they’ll pour the 2009 Bennett Valley Syrah (plus other carefully selected wines) for their guests.
For more information and to order wines: Check out www.kieranrobinsonwines.com. Additionally, the wine is sold via the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board web site, http://www.lcbapps.lcb.state.pa.us, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for a Special Liquor Order. Or call 800-332-7522, option 1.